Weekend Retreat at Mariposa: Through a Newcomer's Eyes

Weekend Retreat at Mariposa: Through A Newcomer's Eyes

Part 2 of the Sugarplum Sangha Series

September, 2018

We were mindfully enjoying a silent dinner on the first night of retreat when a few more people arrived to the retreat. I noticed them walking slowly, carefully, but with inexpressible eagerness into the dining hall.  A young woman entered the room and hardly glanced at the serving table of delicious offerings. Instead her bright eyes were filled to the brim with joyous anticipation, and focused on a friend coming to greet her. The intimate blend of shyness and joy clearly told a story of how much this place and its people had been on her mind and heart, perhaps for weeks, months, or longer…. she had finally arrived.

The brightness in the woman’s eyes and the nature of that interaction was like someone meeting up a beloved family member or a longtime friend while traveling abroad; the love of home and deep familiarity mixed with a sense of ripening adventure was bursting out of her face. Out of the corner of my eye, I watched the fire of anticipation immediately cooled in the refreshing lake of contact, as they hugged silently and serenely for a few minutes. As a new person to this community, I felt a mixture of both awe and appreciation as well as a touch of envy for the close bonds they appeared to share. Earlier in the week, Jonathan and Eric had already forewarned me with patient excitement in their voices, about the special quality of friendships that were blooming among their nascent community. But hearing about and experiencing are two separate things. This dinner was my first real taste of the wider Sugarplum Sangha that fluidly blends both residential and non-residential practitioners into one family.

The Sugarplum Sangha has held a retreat every month of the year together since December 2016. At that time, Joann Rosen, a seasoned Dharma Teacher and long time resident of the Mariposa Institute had been in communication with Jonathan Borella and My Tong, who were passionate, committed (and not too shabby) Sanghabuilders in the Bay and LA area. She invited them to come live there, partner with the existing Mariposa Center, and hold retreats there regularly, thereby laying the foundations of a mindfulness retreat center and residential community. By the time I visited them in April, they had already offered well over a dozen retreats, and their young Sangha tree was already bearing some delicious fruits in its 2nd year together.

So where does the sweetness of the Sugar Plum Sangha come from?  Well the best way to taste this sweetness is to dive in with me on this weekend retreat and weeklong journey I spent there with them… So come along!…

Welcome to Mariposa! …. Dinner will be a bit late, but very happily prepared!

As the sunset laid down countless beams upon the glowing oak leave canopy over Mariposa, I walked down the gravel road to a large wooden yurt for orientation. Its Eastside windows seemed to hang like a spaceship in midair over the creek bed valley and oakwood forest, offering us the beauties of outdoor living in this cozy hall. Having helped wash up after dinner, I was the last one to arrive. The atmosphere inside was crisp with silence as I opened the creaking wooden doors to enter. Everyone was sitting quietly, with eyes closed, breathing harmoniously in stillness together, as if they were some kind of single living, breathing organism in circular formation.

After several minutes, Eric, one of the four residents, invited a bell and broke the silence with a soft yet unmistakably excited voice to welcome us. My, another resident and Sangha co-founder, sat next to Eric as they co-led the orientation. On the surface, they calmly explained the fundamentals of mindfulness practice as well as logistics of the center; but on a more subtle and energetic level, the two of them were tempting us to step more closely into the magical mindfulness journey they have been walking together over the last 15 months. The mood in the room, like the tones in their voices was serene and sincere, with small unconcealed bursts of joy and nervousness eliminated any heaviness in the air. My’s soft, angelic voice was balanced by an unquestionable trust and confidence in the depth of her experiences thus far. “This is the 13th or 14th retreat we’ve done here together, and it’s something very precious that we’ve been slowly cultivating together. We’re a community and peer led retreat. That means we’re all learning from and growing with each other. Yes, we learn so much every time, just like we will this weekend.” 

After a pause, Eric recommenced, “As a community, we all have some parts of our lives that we’re beginners at, and others that we’re more experts at. These retreats are a chance for us to share our gifts with each other, learn from each other, both offering and receiving at once.”  Many gifts and givers there were indeed that weekend. The diversity of five organizers who were leading various activities was impressive, spanning females, males, Filipino, Caucasian, and Vietnamese backgrounds. To be honest, the wide spectrum of unique strengths among the facilitators was one of the most uplifting aspects of the whole retreat for me. As I happened to glance over a few of the anonymous feedback forms at the end of the retreat, it seems like I wasn’t the only one who thought so.

This happened to be the first retreat without Jonathan, one of the core founders and teachers in the community, and it seemed like a big deal for people, especially the organizing and facilitating crew. He was the most seasoned practitioner among them and carried most of the Sangha’s facilitation and organizational leadership in the first year. But by now, the forest had grown several pillar trees who stood strong to embrace the rest of the forest.

Eric was the only male on the organizing team this time. Being a resident and having lots of practice experience over the last few years, he’d had a primary role in organizing retreats the last year. Eric shared with me a few days prior that Joann, the local Dharma Teacher, had commented to their organizing team, ‘Yes, the retreat was great, and things are going great. But, there are too many white guys talking.’ This was felt like a conundrum for them at first, as both Jonathan and Eric, the two ‘white guy’ facilitators, were the only ones living full time at Mariposa over the past year, and thereby did most of the organizing and preparatory work for the retreats. But Joann’s point had clearly made it’s mark, as the Sangha was now supporting a more diverse and dynamic group of non-resident members into facilitatory action. The leadership was well spread out across the retreat. No voice stood out too strongly in front of another, while every voice stood out strong among each other.

After over 45 minutes of sitting and listening together, the facilitators suddenly shook things up with a surprise. I was reminded of the facilitators’ youthful ages as we moved into a game I had never heard of before…. “Buddha Freeze Tag!” (In fact, they later admitted that they invented the game that morning!)

What Buddha Freeze Tag feels like with Sugarplum Sangha

Prior to the game, we had listened to a moving passage form Old Path White Clouds, an account of the Buddha’s life, in which the Buddha befriended and affectionately touched a child who was part of the lowest class in Indian society, the ‘untouchables’. And this became the theme of the game! Basically, someone is the ‘Buddha’ and stands in the middle. That person tries to tag the ‘untouchables’ (the rest of us in the circle) to make them Buddhas and bodhissatvas as well. The untouchables are afraid of being tagged (because of deeply ingrained cultural fears), and try to avoid being touched. Someone in the circle starts off by saying a second person’s name; that second person has to say someone else’s name in the circle before the Buddha in the middle tags them. Slowly, everyone becomes a Buddha, and the game ends when we all become enlightened! (i.e, tagged out). The game was a total hit among everyone, while at the same time forcing us to memorize everyone’s name extremely quickly, especially for us competitive types! Everyone rolled with laughter as people tried to blurt out each other’s names before freezing with fear of being tagged. What a contrast to the meditation and stillness earlier in the evening. It was one of the most fun and creative ice-breakers that I can ever remember playing. What do you expect with the facilitators all being in their 20s and 30s? While perhaps not always true, this quality often supports better games all around.

Dawn in the mountains of Mariposa, home of Sugarplum Sangha

The nights and early mornings in these low coastal mountains were still cold, as we gathered for pre-dawn meditations every morning. A wood fire stove had been burning well before our arrival,  as we cozily gathered inside for warmth, togetherness, and peace. After the meditation, My translated a dharma talk by Thich Nhat Hanh that was originally offered in Vietnamese. I was feeling sleepy that morning, and yet I felt ease and grateful knowing that every aspect and need was being cared for so fluidly and generously by the rest of this young Sangha body.

We finished the dharma talk and proceeded to breakfast, which was was completely silent until wash-up. Except for the last lunch, every meal was silent during the first 15 to 20 minutes in order to practice mindful eating, and maintain a collective energy not dominated by boisterous exchanges throughout the day. And all the better for us, as the meals were exquisitely prepared, and we were a talkative bunch already. For example on the first night, Teel, a new Mariposa resident, went all out to prepare a burrito bar on the first night that included homemade cashew butter topping, cilantro sauce, and a chocolate banana date smoothie. Aside from the decadence, you could feel the love and intimate Sangha friendship flowing through each of her dishes.

Following a break, the Sangha started ‘working meditation’, which I would more appropriately call ‘joyful service’, because there wan’t a lot of meditation happening. While perhaps some people were quietly focused at times, my team had continuous laughter, smiles, and conversations throughout.  We tossed each other empty buckets like footballs after dumping each load of manure, and used wheel barrow journeys down the hill to get to better know each other. Regardless of one preferred quiet or conversation, one thing was clear: a ubiquitously positive spirit infused our work to help build and beautify this Sangha home. We knew that our hands were helping shape, even a little bit, this center for future retreats and possibly even future generations of practitioners.

Working meditation is the best!!

What a day of retreat… Besides everything mentioned, the Sangha gathered for a letter writing exercise, a 2 hour presentation and discussion on global mindfulness communities, dharma sharing for an hour and a half, and an hour and half long Interplay session…. WOOWWW!!!  We sure packed it in. It may have been the fullest day of retreat in my life… and it was all incredibly rich and fun as well. It was one of the most joyful days I’d had in quite a while, actually. I enjoyed it thoroughly, despite even not having slept well the night before. You can bet that I slept well the following night though.

Sunday included another 40 minute meditation at dawn, followed by yoga and breakfast together. One thing I really valued about this retreat was the organizers’ sensitivity to time and spaciousness for closing the retreat on Sunday, which gives everyone plenty of time to clean up their rooms and leave right after lunch. An unhurried drive home (especially for those commuting a few hours back to the Bay), time to settle in back home, do some laundry if needed, and enjoy a relaxing evening before Monday at work is what I call smart retreating.

Our closing session together was… well perfect, for me at least. We grounded ourselves in silent breathing for 10 minutes, the home base of our practice together. Then we did a series of touching the earth practice, offering our respect and gratitude to the land all the ancestors who came before us, before entering into a final sharing circle. For both the closing circle and dharma sharing the day before, people shared with a depth of trust, and vulnerability that was both striking to me as well inexpressibly familiar. People’s raw honesty and personal suffering was matched by overwhelming appreciation and joy for their experiences on retreat and everyone there. This candor and vulnerability allowed people to feel really seen, heard, and supported in what was most present in their lives right then and there. People shared about mental health issues in their family and feeling helpless about it; others shared about current struggles with mental health and weight control; another shared about feeling socially anxious throughout her life, yet still greatly enjoying the retreat’s social activities together; several people spoke to a recurring theme of critical and harsh self-judgments, and how to hold such thoughts and feelings more attentively with discernment and with compassion. Throughout it all, everyone shared their gratitude for what was happening in the retreat, and the opportunity be part of this vigorously budding community.

Cleaning the windows of our souls, we reflect each other more clearly and beautifully…

One gets the sense here that people are positively proud of what they are creating together, and for this precious seedling that is on the rise. They were grateful and excited to be part of something that felt so fresh and genuine, and with so much potential to grow in themselves. Most of all, they felt the happiness and pride of building it themselves. They weren’t following one leader or teacher throughout the retreat; instead, the regular members were all slowly become the leader themselves in some small way or another. That is the mysterious power of the Sangha – something that you can’t exactly place your finger on or duplicate, but you can touch it and receive it through the magic and strength of the group.

Before leaving Mariposa, I sat with Teel on the deck of her porch and newly decorated cabin during a lazy afternoon after the retreat. The afternoon forest was cool yet the spring sunshine was still bright. I shared with her that MorningSun Community, my resident home Sangha feels pregnant with possibility; it’s still young and a growing community that’s just waiting for something big to be born and created through it. She turned to me with wide eyes of knowing and said, “That’s what it feels like here too.”

A Sugarplum Cinnamon Swirl…. Yummm!!!


For more information on Sugarplum Sangha, and to see some really cool videos of their retreats and practice, visit:

www.SugarplumSangha.org


Enjoy a few more photos to taste the many flavors of the Sugarplum Sangha retreat...

Working mindfully, working joyfully, working with a smile to benefit all beings…

How wonderful to clean. Day by day, my heart and mind grow clearer.

(My favorite photo taken at Sugarplum Sangha!)


Special thanks to the kind and generous hearted Sangha friends at Sugar Plum who welcomed me for one week to their community. I'm looking forward to visiting back soon!


The Blooming Forest of Sugar Plum Sangha

The Blooming Forest and Community of Sugar Plum Sangha

#1 of the Mariposa Series

May, 2017

What most impressed me when first visiting Sugar Plum Sangha at the Mariposa Institute was not the hand-built redwood cabins and dorms, nor the meditation hall overlooking the valley forest and creek, nor even the burgeoning community of young people. Rather, first off was the blooming forest completely enveloping their community. So before sharing anything further about the flourishing mindfulness community, let us saunter through the petal rich flourishing forest community. Let us take a rest and sit atop a high rock overlooking the valley with a warm cup of tea in our hands. Welcome to Mariposa and her many many blooming beings….

The slow and rich forest mountain drive up to Mariposa…

Not far off the 101 freeway in Northern California, less than 2 hours north of San Francisco, I drove along a dirt road into the dark green mountain hills, climbing slowly into a river valley well hidden from the city. It was already late afternoon when I arrived at the Mariposa Institute, and its old redwood built cabins and campus appeared very cool and dark shady brown under the thick shade of the oak forest. An old friend appeared, Jonathan, welcoming me with a long Sangha hug to this car weary traveler.

I was eager to explore, so we briefly toured the main buildings and a few cabin dwellings sprinkled throughout the forest valley, as we meandered to the meadow and creek main attractions.  It is difficult to describe the overwhelming contrast of spring’s magic in these California coastal mountains to the frigid city life not far away. It softens the senses, and seemed to prepare my heart and mind for a deeper connection to the community.

We sauntered along the forest paths at the same pace of the soft breeze in the air, following Jonathan’s footsteps that felt neither too slow or too fast. Each step, this hallmark of our tradition, reminded me I was at home in the Sangha here. Even a slight rush to our gait would seem to disrespect the rainbow galaxies of wildflowers and fresh fluorescent green blades waving to us from below. Light permeated a little bit everywhere through the feathered canopy of baby green oak leaves.

Crossing a meadow filled with wild violet irises among countless other blooming beings whose names I have yet to learn, we coursed our way through a steeper forested hillside with a streamed below. Every so often, I would stop and look at Jonathan as if to say, “Dude, You live here now?!”  Jonathan would just chuckle as if he was also barely believing it himself and say, “Yah, I know.” 

The trail meanders through meadows, oak forests, and all along the riverbed valley.

It didn’t take me long to discover why they chose this valley as the true soil to plant their deepest aspirations for building community.“There must be over a billion flowers booming in this stream valley alone, and perhaps a hundred billion across the other valley as well” I thought to myself. Over the next several days, I met many violet and white striped ‘wild irises’, various shades of violet and off-white lupin, little yellow ‘mariposa lilies’ growing on the rocky hillsides, the ‘crimson columbines’ that look like mini gorgeous spaceships, the transparent white and orange ‘fairy lanterns’ that look like real fairy lanterns, and the ‘blue dicks’ with their long stems and just usually two to four violet flowers on top that the butterflies perch and eat from… each one was a new mesmerizing friend.

During my walks either alone or with a friend, I would occasionally stumble upon a whole tribe of  one variety, especially if we ventured off the path. Minding their own business on a undiscovered slope tucked in the valley, I would find this village of wild violet irises, or a well knit community of cool-blue lupin friends. Perhaps they enjoyed particular conditions together there: a little more shade, more moisture, or perhaps more this soil than another. Whatever their reasons, they gathered by the dozens and dozens nearby, covering they territory they have claimed as home.

A family of lupin pops up to greet us happily along our way.

Eventually we came to what Jonathan wanted to show me: a simple, yet very elegant series of cascades hopping down one after another for about 25 to 30 feet. The multiple stages had 5 to 8 foot cascades, gently hopping down one after another, turning left and right, and filling small 2 to 3 person sized swimming holes in the rock at each turn. On the one hand, it was nothing in comparison to the falls that Vanessa and I had become accustomed to in Washington or New Zealand. They weren’t gigantic and thundering, nor magnificent enough to attract people from afar. Yet, this was their waterfall….  gentle cascades in their very own humble backyard. And at a short distance, even a small waterfall can be almost overwhelming to the ears, drowning out any noise in the periphery, and simultaneously numbing the spirit of any dis-ease and anxiety in the periphery of our mind. This was a clearly a Mariposa gem.

I asked Jonathan if we could climb the rocks left of the falls, rising higher above the ravine walls. He hadn’t tried it yet, so like little boys again, we played rock climbing up to the top. The steep and edgy rockside, combined with its pasty violet white succulents growing all around, and various golden yellow, violet, and light maroon wild flowers spurting up in the most unforeseen places was at once exhilarating and peacefully delightful.

Finally, we arose to the simple summit, and behold the view! The view that I am now sitting upon. The kind of view that puts so much of life into grand persecutive and scope of ease. The kind of view that mellows an anxious spirit, and warms the cold places in our soul. It was an western view to catch the last of the sunset rays over the horizon. As I would later find out, the other side of the waterfall valley had an equally stunning view, rising even higher than where we originally perched. With its eastern view, it was an unparalleled morning meditation spot, offering the first glimpses and warmth of the rays peaking up over the mountainous horizon.

A longtime resident later informed that it was called King Kong hill, and I think for good reason. The rocky plateau on top jets out high above the creek bed, and offers a stunning view of the valley on multiple sides. The sheer drop on the eastern side over the creek bed makes one feel like your just the king of the whole forest. If it weren’t for a few lilac bushes on the northwestern side, then the protruding outcrop would offer a full stunning 360 degree view.

Jonathan and I had planned on heading back before sunset, but with our new view, that plan just became obsolete. We poured some tea and breathed silently with the lingering rays. Neither of us could call ourselves wealthy by most conventional financial standards. But a cup of tea out there under the evening sunlight, our bums cushioned by thick red-green moss over the rocks, welcomed by many blooming friends, having a deeply present friend to enjoy it with, and indeed we could call ourselves with absolute certainty, very rich beings in this Universe.

Welcome to the Sugar Plum Sangha at Mariposa.

Old friends, young hearts, and playful spirits

“A view that mellows an anxious spirit or warms the cold places in our soul”



"You're Not Teachers... You're Listeners!" (Advice before Greece)

Part of the Greece Sangha Service Series

March, 2018

Plum Village, August 2017, under the Linden tree on the closing day of the Wake Up retreat in Upper Hamlet…

“What you need to do is to go there and just listen. Don’t go trying to teach anything, mindfulness, or whatever. You want to offer something, you want to help, but what you need to do is listen because you don’t know anything. You’re going to a whole new country, and you’re meeting a whole new culture. You don’t know them, you don’t know anything about them. You can’t teach mindfulness because you don’t know what they need. So, you just listen, that’s your practice. You’re not teachers David, you’re listeners.”


Phap Dung had just finished properly turning my head around 360 degrees, emptying out what was inside, and then setting it back on straight. I hadn’t expected him to knock my noggin out of the ball park, along with all my thoughts and expectations of ‘mindfully’ serving in Greece. As a friend acknowledged a few hours later, I had been ‘Phap Dung-ed’, a not-so-rare Plum Village phenomenon. I had sought his advice and encouragements for our Greece Sangha Service project, knowing that this would be a challenging expedition of both living and serving together in the ongoing refugee crisis. This included our aspirations to share our practice with other volunteers and NGOs serving in Greece, as I was familiar with sharing mindfulness practice with social workers back home. Fortunately, we have elder brothers and sisters who are not afraid to offer us a Dharma punch when we truly need it, so that our deepest aspirations can meet our habit energies on the ground, and not in the clouds.

“Phap Dung-ed”… with a smile.

During the past several years, Greece has been a doorway for millions of migrants seeking refuge from war, persecution, and economic distress. They risked everything: their homeland, savings, family members, and even their own lives, while hoping for a new way of life. For years, I felt called to go and serve in Greece, but I also knew that I could not go alone. Alone, I would shrivel up and my efforts would not reach as far as I truly hoped. I knew that I needed a Sangha.

So where can one share such aspirations with hundreds of young people who are opening their hearts to compassionate action and peace in themselves? Yep, a Wake Up Retreat in Plum Village! Last August, we shared our aspirations to model the School of Youth for Social Service in Vietnam and head down to Greece as a Sangha, asking for people to join us. ‘Let’s fuse together our practice of mindful living and sanghabuilding with our deep calling to serve those who in need.’ We understood that volunteers were strongly needed in Greece during the fall and winter months especially, so we invited people, “Come talk with us at lunch if you’re interested.” Each lunch gathering, over 20 people joined!  And in the end, 15 young adults, from eight different countries were committed to embarking on this adventure together! Wow! I love our Sangha!

Our Sangha crew of volunteers for the first month in Athens

So what did we do? We came together and first off, we listened to each other, and this only grew stronger every day. Who were these people we were living with? What were their deepest dreams and fears? What nourishment did we truly need as a Sangha to offer our presence wholeheartedly every day to others? Through our deep listening and sharing, we co-created our lives together, balancing work with morning meditations, silent meals, dharma sharings, and at least one super fun outing in nature or the city each week.

We lived in a migrant-rich neighborhood, allowing us to live in the same neighborhood with those we aspired to learn from, serve, and build relationships. We worked in refugee camps, community centers, and NGO’s in Athens, and in diverse capacities such as art therapists, physiotherapists, assistant cooks and staff in soup kitchens, mental health practitioners, legal support, construction, English and French language instruction, animal care, community gardening, and facilitated a weekly Sangha in town as well. And after a few months (of listening and learning), we did end up offering mindfulness workshops for NGO staff and volunteers who asked for our support. Some of us stayed for one month, others two to four months, and still others remain committed to living, Sanghabuilding, and creatively serving in Athens.

Looking and listening to the city with all her beauty, cries, and wonder….

Then we listened to the streets: to the singing-shouting tone of the woman selling bags of onions, tomatoes, and potatoes on our corner for one euro each; to the young Syrian man’s effervescent smile as we get off the same bus stop together and become instant friends; to the smell of tomatoes and garlic stewing under Syrian hands at Hope Café; to the compassionate trust in our brother’s voice as he recounted holding his brother in his hands for the last time after being shot by a sniper while waiting in line for food; and to crazy laughter as Phillipe tossed children in the air on his feet for the first acro-yoga session of their lives. We listened, learned, marveled at their spirits of resilience, and most of all, we developed friendships. True listening cannot help but create true friendships. And when true friendship manifests, there is no one serving and no one being served. There is only love that serves us both and reminds us of the gifts that we are to each other.

Dermot (left) and Barry (right) hang out with a dear Syrian friend and regular at Hope Cafe. Hope Cafe was the most vibrant, friendly, and supportive public space for the Syrian community that we experienced. To our blessing, it was a 5 minute walk from our house.

As our power of listening grew, so did our other Sangha powers, namely harmony, and joy. Before heading Athens together, we also asked for guidance from other monastics, like Br. Phap Linh. “Don’t forget to nourish your joy together”, he implored. “ That’s essential. Because when you nourish your joy, that’s what you’ll be sharing with others. You don’t keep it for yourselves, you offer that beautiful energy to those that you’ll be with. Especially when you’re doing this kind of work, if you’re feeling down and drained of energy, then you haven’t got anything to offer to others. They need for you to be nourished deeply. So you need to replenish your reserves; it’s a constant cycle of nourishment and offering.”

And from the abbot, Br Phap Huu: “The most important thing is your harmony together. That is what will carry you through. That is the energy that will allow you to help others. People will see your harmony, your brotherhood and sisterhood and feel drawn to it.”

We took these gems of wisdom that were handed freely to us, and then we polished them with our own experiences. Most importantly, we learned to build a Sangha family, and that was our deepest teaching of all. What is the kind of family that we wish for the most in our lives? A family that supports us, that helps us cultivate joyful togetherness, compassionate listening, and harmony among each other that we then channel into the lives of those we wish to serve with all our hearts. Through our deep aspiration to serve the world, we touched the seed of true  community, of family, of Sangha, because we need that true Sangha family in order to truly serve others.

Sangha family, in joy and harmony

We learned that when we didn’t cultivate joy, listen deeply, or disregarded harmony, then it left us near empty in our service towards others. So we began again and again and again with each other, and we never gave on each other. We sat in the mornings, came home to the safe warm refuge of dharma sharings in the evening, and practiced harmony of views during meetings to forge creative insights in our major decisions together. When someone left our Sangha, we watered their flowers so deeply that it brought deep joy and even bliss to all of us. We became one Buddha body, and when one cell touched happiness, then the rest of the body had more strength and love to share with others. And when the body was in harmony, each cell reflected delight and could shower this energy to those elsewhere.

I could share for hours and hours about our stories of our Sangha family and service, but I will now pass the baton over to my Sangha brothers and sisters, who may share their stories and reflections more deeply with you. The articles following in the next few weeks are windows into our experiences as cells working in various arenas of Athens, while also being nourished and held as one Sangha body.

Mercia practically holds our hand as we wake up with the Sangha one morning and intimately walk into the streets and friends at Hope Café. Zarah invites us into Eleonas Refugee Camp and to the safe warm haven back home, where both places carry one message: be there for each other! Dermot takes us through the streets and squats of Athens while arriving at one of the deepest experiences of family in his life. And Barry unravels the ancient koan of engaged Buddhism in his own heart: What does it truly mean to serve?

Welcome to our lives of service, family, and heartbreaking joy with Wake Up Athens!

–    David Viafora, True Zen Mountain

Our first week in Athens, we walked to the top of the hill together…. listening, meditating, and discovering moment by moment the beauty of our beloved city



New Years Retreat 2018: Brothers before Refugees

Brothers and Humans before Refugees

Part 4 of the Greece Sangha Service Series

January, 2018

It was the first gathering and first night together of our New Years retreat on Aegina Island. Although we were not far from home, the raucous life and cries from Athens seemed like a distant world behind us. Our Aegina oasis on the other hand, with its jungle-like garden, serene ocean two hundred meters away, groves of pistachio trees surrounding us on all sides, aged beauty of its historic residence with wooden floors, old garden statues, and multiple balconies overlooking the dark aqua sea with island and peninsula mountains in the horizon – it was an utterly majestic setting, and she enveloped our souls into its wild and heavenly embrace. Because of the generosity and vision of her stewards, we were able to afford this beautiful center and express our deep aspirations. This was a unique New Years retreat combining international volunteers, refugees from the Middle East and Africa, and Greek residents. While paradise surrounded us, even more magic was unfolding within its walls.

Groves of bare pistachio trees and a forested garden surround the castle-like retreat center on Aegina, our island oasis for five days together.

Instead of heading up top to the presentation room with its impressive views of islands and stars, we gathered in the communal room downstairs for our first gathering together. Its lofty ceiling and windows expansively overlooked the garden’s jungle, offering us a relaxed and casual, yet inspiring atmosphere for us to connect, release, and be embraced. While the group contained several strong friendships, many of us were totally new to each other. Furthermore, it was the first time that several of us, including volunteers and refugees, had ever experienced meditation, let alone a full retreat.

Sensing some shyness and hesitation, we decided to shatter any nervousness right from the start with introductions that combined laughter with light-hearted embarrassment. “Please share your name, where you’re from, and imitate the calling or movements of your favorite animal…” Everyone was shocked and laughed at my absurd suggestion, but then became quietly focused on themselves and their upcoming animal presentation after seeing that I was serious about it. Giggles, outright laughter, some admirations, tons of embarrassing moments, and success! We were bonding and overcoming our social fears, not merely as volunteers and refugees, but more like kids playing and sharing freely in a tree house together. As we went around, it was clear that Mohsen, a new friend from Afghanistan, had by far the best callings out of anyone, and was able to beautifully imitate several animals named in the circle. Now we were ready to dive in further.

A beautiful brother.

“This retreat is a gift to ourselves. It’s a gift to our bodies and minds to deeply rest, to release what we’ve been holding in the city, in our homes, our jobs, our relationships, and in our hearts. The wild beauty of this island, the lulling sounds of the ocean embracing us, and especially the kind and supportive friends around us, all these elements are allowing us to release tension, to let go, and to touch something deeper in ourselves. We may invite ourselves to touch the deep wells of peace, compassion, and spaciousness within us…”

On the one hand, I was used to providing very clear guidance on meditation practice, including upright posture. On the other hand, I felt cautious about overly encouraging anyone to sit or be in a way that felt strange or uncomfortable for them, especially those with different religious and cultural backgrounds. After stopping to breathe for several moments, I settled on a middle way and shared, “Here is the way that some of us here have learned to cultivate peace and joy in our bodies and minds. You are welcome to join us and experiment it yourself. But don’t merely take our word for it. See for yourself what feels comfortable, beneficial, and right for you.”

Mohsen, our friend from Afghanistan, lay back against the couch with his eyes closed, as I slowly coursed into our first guided meditation. The couches were not very supportive for a typical upright position, and already Mohen’s posture looked more conducive to falling asleep than meditating. But we didn’t have proper meditation cushions and our most essential task was to allow him and everyone else to begin feeling deeply comfortable with such raw silent awareness. Cultivating this collective quiet presence was new to him and others, and we wished to enter it slowly, for this doorway would allow us to enter further realms of deep authenticity, contemplation, brotherhood and sisterhood, and genuine transformation together. At least, we hoped.

We sat (or laid against the couch) in quiet stillness together for fifteen minutes, as we guided a basic mindfulness practice focusing on one’s body and breath, touching the simple yet profound joy of being fully present and alive. Whether people were meditating, or passing out on the couch, who could tell?  

Under the surface, our silent candlelit awareness slowly started seeping in, infusing drops of peace and compassion into the skin, muscles, bones, and heart of our newly born Aegina family.

In addition to relaxing and rejuvenating our bodies and spirits, our retreat’s purpose was to learn deeply from one another, especially by encouraging everyone to share about their authentic experiences and needs. Having arrived on a deeper level together, we were ready to begin listening. We invited everyone to give their personal ‘weather report’ in the moment, as well as tell about their intentions for coming to this 4-day retreat. One by one, people spontaneously voiced what was alive for them,  while the rest of us listened deeply. After about an hour, only Mohsen was left. We sat in silence for a few minutes, giving him the space to offer his unique voice. Not wanting to pressure him, I prepared to close the circle, but cautiously asked him a last time. He raised hand slightly and glanced my way in affirmation.

“My whole life I have struggled. I have struggled for so long. Peace, calm, what you speak of – I don’t know what that is. I never knew what that is. Walking in the garden, relaxing, swimming in the ocean, I don’t know what that is. People in my country, they struggle. This is the first time in my life I have tried something like this – meditation. And I really appreciate you for sharing with me.” Mohsen turned to look at me as he spoke. The light was dim in the room, and I could only see the dark shadow over his eyes. Yet his deep dark eyes still conveyed something perfectly to me – the soft intimacy and peace of sharing something precious together. He turned back to the circle, and continued. “I try it now, and I think it helps me.” My heart sank into deep appreciation, knowing that our community was able to offer this young man who has struggled so much of his life, some moments of real peace. Even if it was just a few moments, it was what we had come here for. I felt my chest sigh quietly in relief, as I sensed that our aspirations had already come to fruition, had already realized themselves. Even if this is all we had succeeded in, it was enough and worthy all our efforts to manifest this retreat.

Mohsen dove in further, fearlessly sharing his thoughts with us. “I am living in Athens now with the label of fucking ‘refugee’. I hate that word, that label. First, I am a human being. People don’t know me, don’t know where I’m from and my experiences. I am not just ‘refugee’. They don’t understand me, but they think they do.”

“I have a few friends who are really good – a few. They spend time with me, we go places together, and we have a nice time. Really, they are so great. But they are few compared to the others. The others who aren’t open to me, or don’t say anything to me, even as I say hi and say something to them. But they don’t say anything back, they only talk and spend time with each other.

“What really upsets me, what I hate, is that people think that they’re better than me, better than refugees. The way they talk with me, or don’t talk with me, and how they only spend time with each other, and not with refugees, that upsets me so much. They think they are better than me, and so I work hard, I work so hard all the time to prove that they are not. They are international volunteers but why are there? They do not come to help. I asked them one day, ‘Why are you here?’ And then they say, ‘Oh, for fun.’ For fun? For fun? How can they say that? They think this is fun for them? This is our lives here.”

Mohsen bent his head forward and put his hand near his eyes, covering most of his cheek and eyes. It was difficult to see his face, but we still felt it. As he paused and took in some moments of silence, with our ears and hearts we could still see his eyes and expression in the shadow of his hands.

Light and darkness dance with each other, both in sunsets and in our lives.

After a few minutes, a new tone conveyed clarity and strength, but with the continued pain of exasperation. “Normally, I am not able to say these things, and they build up inside me until I explode. I get upset and then I go drink and then I go talk to them about it when I am drunk. And then people get upset that I talk to them like this. I say that I am talking like this when I am drunk because I am not able to say this to them before. I need to talk about it but I don’t know how… This is very good, talking here with all of you. It’s good for me.” Mohsen’s voice started becoming more relaxed, with hints of gratitude peeking through with a sense of relief. We could feel the storm of his feelings returning to the ocean of calm and clear skies that we typically see in him.

“I am happy that I have this time to spend here with all of you, with open-minded people. For this I am thankful.” Mohsen paused pensively for another moment, before decidedly putting his palms together in front of his chest and deeply bowing to the group to close his sharing.

Mohsen’s words blew us all away. Most of us had just met this young man. And yet, here we were, on this island together, listening to him share some of the deepest sentiments and struggles of his life as a ‘refugee’ in a foreign world. We were volunteers, yet he shared the pain of volunteers in his life; we knew him as a ‘refugee’, yet he shared the pain of living with label; we were mostly white Europeans and Americans, yet he fearlessly opened up our understanding such cultural divisions. Mohsen clearly felt the atmosphere of safety and care in the room grow stronger around him, and he trusted it to embrace him, so that his truths could spread its wings and fly out towards all of us.

The majestic golden eagle, Afghanistan’s national bird; an icon of freedom and strength.

When someone entrusts the sacred gems of their interior world to me, it is one of the most precious gifts in life that I can receive. I later asked Ioan, one of his closest friends and who invited him to attend the retreat, whether he had shared these deep reflections before. Ioan said he was amazed how much Mohsen had shared, how powerful his words were, and that he had never heard him share such sentiments before.

Throughout the next few days, Mohsen fully immersed himself in our retreat. We enjoyed walking meditation in the garden and down to the ocean, sunset meditation at the beach, mindful eating during silent meals, mindful hiking to an ancient olive grove together, writing reflections on the new year, and another sharing circle. The longer we spent together, the less we remembered who was ‘volunteer’ or who was ‘refugee’. We were all just kids playing on this island together, just boys and girls touching moments of joy, peace, and freedom together. Perhaps we were all refugees fleeing from the chaos of city-life, and we were all volunteers, continuously gifting and serving each other in various ways to make the retreat possible.

One of the many moments that stood out the most during our retreat was watching Mohsen’s determination one morning to cook us a traditional Afghani meal. The night before Mohsen left the retreat a day earlier than us, he expressed an unshakeable wish to offer us a gift from his homeland. Mohsen awoke earlier than everyone else and started the long process of sautéing eggplants, cooking rice, preparing eggs, and crafting the secret sauces of his land ancestors.

With our backpacks filled with both Greek and Afghanistan delights, we set off together for our hike on New Years Eve.

We hiked that day to an ancient olive grove, where trees had nourished former monastic communities in a sacred valley up to two thousand years ago. The great grandmother olive trees were not only the perfect inspiration for our reflections together, but also for our special New Years eve Afghani meal. We sat between these beautiful ancient beings, and relished Mohsen’s offerings. Not only was the meal uniquely delicious, but we savored Mohsen’s happiness as he offered us all a true taste of his homeland. With each bite of mouth-watering eggplant in sweet yogurt sauce, we were instantly transported from this Greek island to the roaming hills of Afghanistan. If listening deeply to Mohsen share his struggles was like the rain soaking into the earth and seeds, then offering his homeland meal was like the sunshine pouring down upon his blooming flowers.

Behind the camera, Mohsen captures us rejoicing over the feast.

Mohsen made it clear to us that our retreat together on the island meant the world to him. The night he left, we had a big hugging circle around him, and he kept sharing with everyone how much, ‘I fucking appreciate you all and this time!’. Had he bloomed among us?  Or was it us who had bloomed because of him? Perhaps it was true friendship who bloomed instead, revealing her brilliant petals and sweet fragrance to all of us. Yes, true friendship, with her timeless blossoms of inclusivity, compassion, and joy.

Because of the magical diversity of our group, this was one of most amazing retreats that we had ever organized, and Mohsen’s presence in our circle was perhaps the biggest treasure. It allowed those of us who had never been refugees, to see the world through his eyes, and receive the lessons he had to offer. The extent to which his genuine story will help and guide us in our continued work as volunteers cannot be overestimated.

Bringing people together from different worldviews is a catalyst for even greater transformation in our lives and maturity in our worldview. Our deep wish is to have another retreat in the future, with more migrants from abroad, Greeks, and international volunteers coming together to practice peace, and share our unique gifts with each other.

With blue sky, rocks to climb on, great friends, and a fresh smile on our hearts, what more could we ask for?

Special thanks to our kind and generous hearted Sangha friends who had offered scholarship funds for this special New Years retreat in Greece. (Especially Elli & Rob, Anne Woods, David Percival, and Sue Rempel. Your support was the last condition for us to bloom). Thank you!


Enjoy a few more photos to taste the many flavors of our Sangha retreat...

With 2,000 year old Great-Grandmother Oak behind us, what more inspiration could we ask for to reflect deeply this New Years?

Sangha sunset meditation on Aegina…

Sangha Family!

A mindful lunch together…

 And the 5 year old children within us were set free!!!…



Jasmine Rising from a Sea of Fire

Jasmine Flower Rising from a Sea of Fire 

 Part 3 of the Greece Sangha Service Series

December, 2017

We were in the middle of mindfully savouring our silent dinner, when I caught Mohammad’s text that he was nearby outside. I quietly stepped outside to greet him downstairs. Watching him walk down the street towards us with his approaching smile, I felt both relief and elation that he was able to finally join us despite the short notice of our holiday plans. “Hello David!”  I gave him a big hug, returned his smile, and said, “Hi Mohammad, I’m so glad that you could make it! We’re happy to have you join us.”  Riding up in the elevator, I asked him, “Do you know about Thanksgiving?” “Oh yes, it’s in the movies”, he said with both sincerity and a touch of humor. “Haha, yes, that’s true, it’s in the movies. Well, it’s a very important holiday for us in the States.”

But this wasn’t just any Thanksgiving – it was also an occasion for the few us Americans to royally treat our fellow European, African, and Syrian friends to a special evening together. Most of us had come to Athens a few months prior to live together as a mindfulness intentional community of volunteers serving in refugee camps and community centers. Our American trio wished share the best of our homeland culture with our Athens family, infusing the holiday with not only delicious food, but also deep friendship, moments of silence, and gratitude sharings.

Vanessa and I were preparing almost the entire day. After a busy morning of shopping apart, we looked at each other, a bit weary and disheveled, and Vanessa pleaded, “I want to meditate for a bit before cooking.” “Ahhh, you speak my mind as well, let’s sit for at least 15.” Even though we had loads to prepare before everyone arrived, we took our time and started off our big kitchen day with peace and joy. Lighting some incense and a candle, we settled into a relaxed seated position, quietly tuning into each other and each breath. After 15 minutes of heavenly relief, Vanessa invited the bell, and we slowly, and mindfully moved from the hall to the kitchen.

Candlelight and calligraphy adorn our altar and illuminate our minds.

Vanessa lit some incense again, reminding us that the kitchen was also meditation hall, and the chopping boards our sutras, where we could place our loving attention into each dish as a gift to our family. Meanwhile, Mercia shook her magic wand around the house, transforming our dining room with white candlelight, an array of white flowers, fresh rosemary branches fanning around the table, and several persimmons infusing warmth and bright joy between them all.

One of the sweetest moments earlier in the evening was our silent meal. Typical thanksgiving feasts can be fun but also loud and socially exhausting. We infused the holiday with our ways of peace, gratitude, and attentiveness to the subtle miracles of our lives. After a meal blessing and some guidance about mindful eating, we invited a bell and began eating in silence together. After cooking for several hours, and with so many us together in a festive spirit, the quiet power of us all together was the tastiest dish I could have asked for. Although it was a different experience for our new friends, there is something universally precious and satisfying about silence. Together, we relished every morsel and moment together.

Throughout the evening, the mood was light and celebratory, especially because of our two guests of honor: Bara, Leonie’s friend from Senegal, and Mohammad. Besides myself, only Dermot, a fully gregarious and generous Irishman in our mindfulness community had met Mohammad. We both had wonderful encounters with Muhammad at the community center for refugees, and were excited for him to join us. This was the first time at our apartment and we had no idea how rare this experience was for him.

“One love”, from Dermot and Bara

As he sat down with us, I brought Mohammad a non-alcoholic specialty that Vanessa and I made for our holiday occasion. Sparkling bubbles rose up through pomegranate juice and seeds, and a slice of citrus, as I amiably offered him a goblet. A few friends started asking questions with smiles and open-eyed curiosity. As appreciative as was for their sweet and open-minded intentions to greet Mohammad and know him better, inevitable discomforts arose as I watched our different universes slowly colliding. Normal social intros take on different meaning in such circumstances.

“How long have you been in Athens, Mohammad?” “Just two months already.” “Oh, two months, and where did you come from?”  “I’m from Syria.” A short silent pause. Yes, they expected the answer, but the response still carries its share of untold stories of war and limitless hardship underneath, and in this case, as recent as September. “And where in Syria do you come from?”  Another politely habitual question… “Aleppo.”  Another short silent pause. Again, it’s a typical response as there are thousands of Syrians from Aleppo, like Mohammad, living in Athens. Nonetheless, images of white concrete rubble extending for miles and miles flutter in and out of our consciousness as we continue to converse.

Aleppo, the largest city in Syria, after several years of war.

Here we were, enjoying a typical holiday meal, ready to share our deepest gratitudes, in an air of lightness, ease, and joy, as our guests of honor join us from different worlds. How do we hold our two worlds together? How to bridge the oceanic gaps between us? Perhaps we already were.

I serve Mohammad some of my and Vanessa’s favorite vegan Thanksgiving dishes: a plate of homemade mashed potatoes and mushroom gravy, coconut curry squash stew with roasted chickpeas, and beets in balsamic and orange zest sauce. Vanessa humorously explains our search for cranberry sauce, which was nonexistent in Athens. Mohammad smiles at me warmly as I serve him, and I see that there is peace and gratitude in his eyes. The conversation continued.

Mohammad carried an air of respect, ease, and a subtle confidence built of trust while sitting and conversing with us throughout the evening. He was displaced from his homeland, but I could sense his deep rootedness and strength as he conversed. His english was imperfect, but his voice and intentions were heard clearly; he showed little or no embarrassment or shyness when asking for clarity or explaining that he could not understand our thick accented Irish brothers. In one sense, he was a stranger among us; but in another, we were the strangers in this new land, and learning deeply about his world.

Syrians regard jasmine as their national flower. Here, a branch of jasmine blooms with Damascus in the background.

The conversation naturally grew lighter, as he and Dermot joked about what American shows he watched to learn English while growing up in Syria. Our friends gradually learned that Muhammad was a young doctor, having just finished med school training, merely months before fleeing Aleppo and arriving in Athens. He was from a well to do family in Syria who provided him with excellent values and education throughout his life. But virtually no one, especially from Aleppo was able to escape the devastation. His family had lost nearly everything except their lives as they fled to Turkey. His 18 year old brother escaped to Germany two years ago and Mohammad had been trying to arrive there with him as well, but that road had been blocked multiple times and he was struggling to find another way through. Even a young and talented doctor, fully educated, versed in multiple languages, bright, handsome, of wealthy background, and of upright bearing – even one this blessed was searching to find a path forward in the aftermath.

We were thrilled that Mohammad could celebrate Thanksgiving with us, and revelled in all its novelties, including his first taste of apple pie, which he had also only previously known from the movies. While Mohammad was clearly enjoying his pie quietly, I watched him pause for a few moments in reflection. Then with an almost giddy smile, he shared something with us. “This is the first time I have been with non-Arabic people.” We all looked at him, as our eyes lit up, our mouths opened wide in awe. “Wows” and “Ahas” erupted among us, as our hands went in the air in celebratory exclamation. I had expected for this to be Mohammad’s first Thanksgiving ever, but I had never considered that it might be his first gathering with non-arabic people. That is, his first meal with white people. “What an honor for us to have you here, Mohammad! We get to share this special moment with you, and what a privilege!”  Hearing this news greatly increased how special the evening felt for all of us.

Francie expresses a beaming smile and happiness across the dinner table as we share Thanksgiving.

A lively and joyful conversation ensued for some time, and would have easily lasted the entire evening as well if we had wanted. But we really wished to bring out the very best of our tradition, so I invited a bell and transitioned us ahead. “It’s a custom for many of us and our families back home in the States, that on this special holiday, we take time to share our gratitudes for this life: our precious friendships, nourishing and delicious food, our health and family, the gorgeous blue sky, our beloved community, and so on. We have so much to be thankful for. Sharing such blessings with each other makes them feel more real in our lives, and even increases their abundance. Tonight, this evening is made even more special as we have the presence of two special guests of honor: Bara and Mohammad. Thank you for being here dear brothers, for receiving the specialness of our holiday, and blessing our evening with your presence.”

We went around the table, each of us reflecting on our deepest gratitudes at this period of our lives. It was so moving to hear everyone share, but it was our guests of honor who really captured our deepest attention and awe.

After a few moments of silence between us and the glowing candles glowing between us, Bara jumped in, speaking bravely before the rest of us. Offering his respect and enthusiasm, Bara stood up while beginning to share. “Thank you for welcoming me so beautifully with you tonight. The food is really so good, wow, yes so delicious. And now I asked Leonie about maybe becoming a vegetarian.” Everyone laughed out loud with him while also hearing his sincerity, knowing his strong preferences for non-vegetarian dishes. Bara continued English, while filling in gaps in French, his more fluent tongue next to native Senegalese dialect. “But seriously, I really appreciate this beautiful time with all of you. I have not felt such lightness and ease and peace in my heart as I feel tonight in some many years.” We all dropped into a deep listening silence as he spoke. “The silence and energy here and your presence is very healing for me. And I feel you are all my brothers and sisters. Yes, truly. Because in our world, it really means something when we see past colors, and it’s not just about being black and white…”  Bara’s words quickly became emotional and he stopped speaking in mid sentence. “I’m sorry, I need to go outside now. Please excuse me”. We encouraged Bara to take his time and enjoy the fresh air as he stepped outside.

Although we didn’t understand completely what arose for Bara, we felt the pain in his heart that was able to spontaneously emerge from the depths of his gratitude. This pain was able to surface safely amidst the presence of our deep listening, and his uplifting words of gratitude. Being in the presence of a group of white friends, we represented all the wealthy European and North American countries which over decades, forbade him and his native brothers from entering our lands and working alongside us. While sensitive to his pain, we were comforted by his words that healing and peace was taking place within him, in the midst of our fellowship. One by one, throughout the rest of the evening, Bara conveyed his heartfelt gratitude and joy to each of us, illustrating with his big smile and intimate eyes how dearly he enjoyed the evening. With childish enthusiasm, he promised that soon enough, he would be treating us all to a proper Senegalese feast as well.

The following week, Bara offered us a Senegalese dish, West African nut stew. (Delicious!)

Again, silence returned amidst flickering candlelight around white blossoms and bold persimmons, as we waited for the next person to share. “Okay, I’ll go.”  Following the form that he had seen, Mohammed put his hands together in front of his chest and bent his chest in a slight bow forward. As if to remove anything blocking his throat, he projected his voice firmly and clearly.

“The war destroyed everything for us.” He paused, half nodding to affirm his reality, as our ears lit up to receive his powerful sharing. “Yes, we lost everything.  During that whole time and since I have come here to Greece, I have never felt such peace as I feel here with you.” I felt both startled by the power of his statement, as well as moved for his depth of his gratitude in this moment. The directness of his eyes and openness of his words towards each us held nothing back. “It’s so nice to be here with you. The food has been delicious, and your hospitality is remarkable. I want to thank all of you for inviting me and being so warm and open. It is very special for me to know all of you.” Then he stopped and paused for a moment before continuing. “If it weren’t for the war, then I would never have been able to be here tonight and know all of you.” Mohammad looked like he was full of emotion, as if he hadn’t even conceived that that would come out. We all just sat there in pure silence, half-amazed, and half-processing the power and meaning of his words. Hearing him speak about both the war in his country and his gratitude for our friendship was like watching a jasmine flower rise from a sea of fire.

Who knew? Who of us knew that sharing sharing a simple yet heartfelt holiday dinner from our homeland in a spirit of brotherhood and sisterhood, filled with moments of silence, and in an atmosphere of acceptance and gratitude… who knew that such simple gifts could offer such radical happiness and healing for each other? It’s so simple. And yet, so powerful. If we have a community that can do this together, then we are beyond lucky. A community that is able to offer warmth, friendliness, the peace of shared silence, simple nourishing foods, deep listening, and an openness to gratitude – these are the precious gifts that so many of us have been waiting for in our lives. If we have such gifts, then we can embrace many people, including others, and heal wounds that may be buried in our hearts for many years.

Now, we are already planning out our Christmas and New Year’s gatherings – new occasions to embrace and celebrate each other with more friends.

Thanksgiving dinner together, shortly before Mohammad arrived.



Wake Up Athens Video

Greece Sangha Service in Action...

We are excited to share our first video of our Greece Sangha Service Project!

We are a group of 15 international friends practicing mindfulness, who met in Plum Village mindfulness center in the summer, and share the common aspiration to cultivate peace in the world by bringing our presence, thoughtfulness and care to every interaction. We felt a strong calling to come to Athens together in order to listen and learn, and to offer our support and compassion to a country that currently faces both a refugee and an economic crisis.

Here is our unfolding story... 

Thanks to your generous donations so far, we reached our initial goal and are now crowdfunding for phase two of the project!

Help us reach our new goal of 200%!

The funds raised will be overseen by a committee consisting of members of our community of mindful volunteers. Together, we have been envisioning long-term projects which will have positive and sustainable impacts upon the well-being of the most vulnerable populations in Greece. 

We wholeheartedly invite you to support our project!

Please support Our Mindfulness Service Project in Greece!

Thank you!!!


Responding Communally and Compassionately in Greece

Sanghabuild Arrives in Athens

November, 2017

Dear Beloved Community,

Greetings from Athens! It is with tremendous joy and dedicated hearts that we write to you from our blooming residential practice community in Greece: Wαkε Up Athεnα!

Over the past month, over a dozen of Wake Uppers have descended from diverse European countries and North America with the aspirations to live and practice together, listen deeply and learn, and serve the beautiful people, animals, and land here.

As many of you know, during the past several years, Greece has been a doorway for millions of migrants seeking refuge from war, persecution, and economic distress. They have risked everything: their homeland, savings, family members, and even their own lives, while hoping for a new way of life. The stories they are sharing with us reveal both the ever-resilient and tender loving heart of humanity, as well as the depths of human sorrow and tragedy.

We have come with a deep faith in the power and resiliency of our own beloved community and practice to support us in responding both communally and compassionately to this ongoing situation. First and foremost, we come here to learn, listen, and appreciate the strength, wisdom, and joy that has kept them alive and persevering through untold hardships. They are our teachers here, no doubt.

Beholding Athens, in all its glory and challenges

We also believe that as a community of practice, we have something to offer to the people, animals, and land here – that by our practice of deep listening and mindfulness in daily life, we may respond in ways that offer true friendship and support.

So far, we’ve been 15 practitioners strong, representing Germany, Ireland, France, Austria, Switzerland, the Netherlands, the United States, and England. We are serving in refugee camps, community centers, and NGO’s in Athens, and in diverse capacities such as art therapy, physiotherapy, assistant cooks and staff in soup kitchens, mental health practitioners, legal support, construction, English and French language instruction, animal care, community gardening, and more! In coming weeks and months, we will also be offering mindfulness practice sessions for staff and volunteers in NGO’s around Athens who have requested our support. Some of us will be staying for one month, others two to four months, and still others indefinitely.

We begin every day by holding each other in meditation, words from our root Teacher, and a quiet communal breakfast. Most mornings we have a check-in sharing together, and every evening, we share a communal dinner in mindfulness to support our collective harmony and joy. We maintain a vegetarian diet and freedom from alcohol or other substances in our houses, and continuously support conscious communication with each other. Every week, we do something super fun in Athens to refresh our spirits and grow our wonder at the beauty of this land. We’re continually reassessing our weekly and daily practice together to better support each other and the Athens community.

Every morning, we gather in silence and joy, preparing our minds and hearts for whatever the day asks of us.

We have been blessed by the gracious support and abilities of our Sangha sister Leonie Meester, who has been living in Greece for two years already, and opened up the door for all of us to live together in two Sangha houses in Athens, located next to each other. We live in a migrant-rich neighborhood, allowing us to live in the same neighborhood with those we aspire to learn from, serve, and build relationships.

Perhaps our greatest lesson thus far is that we are most effective, receive and offer the most, through the simple yet priceless beauty of friendships we have been making, both with each other and with the diverse people living here. This is where our deepest joys and gratitudes have been manifesting so far.

We welcome people’s questions, encouragements, and support for our Sangha living and service experiment.

Bowing before the three jewels,

David Viafora, representing Wake Up Athena

To learn more, visit us on Facebook: Greece Sangha Service Project

The Abbot of Upper Hamlet in Plum Village, Thay Phap Huu offered us this calligraphy to support and encourage our efforts as a community of practice in Greece. It has been our prevailing mantra throughout.



Interview with Morning Sun Community - as featured in the Mindfulness Bell

Morning Sun Community's Featured Article

We are excited to share Sanghabuild's interview with Morning Sun Founders Michael and Fern, recently published in the Mindfulness Bell, a journal of the art of mindful living!

We feel that this is one of our best articles yet, and we are happy to invite you into Morning Sun's first intimate steps as a young but thriving community. We are also excited to share that the editor selected Sanghabuild's photo of Morning Sun's young adult retreat as the cover photo!

For a more authentic experience with the original Mindfulness Bell article, we have preserved the article and photos in their initial form and layout for you to read.

Step into Morning Sun Community's creation and adventure

We also wholeheartedly invite you to check out more of what the Mindfulness Bell journal has to offer.  Each issue focuses on the most cutting edge practices and topics of socially engaged practice in our world, from mindfulness in education, mindful consumption, social justice and racial equity, practicing peace in times of war, mindfulness and the Plum Village community's continuation in light of Thich Nhat Hanh's illness, and more...

Deepen your journey of practice with the Mindfulness Bell...


Fig Picking and Harmonious Living in West Hamlet: Part 2

Fig Picking and Harmonious Living 

 Part 2 of the West Hamlet Series

August, 2017

During our last evening at West Hamlet, Michel and Pascale invited us to take a walk around the vineyards and forests, to a place they often enjoy together as a couple. We still had some packing and cleaning to do, but we knew that this opportunity was not to be missed. West Hamlet is perched upon a plateau that overlooks a long plain of vibrant greenery. Along their property and neighboring lands are terrific views of farms, vineyards, and forests expanding as far as the eye can see… all of them exuding different shades of nature’s emerald solar panels.

We walked to Pascale’s favorite spot on the banks of a shallow hillside cliff, and silently watched the sunset together. In no words at all, Vanessa and I listened and watched the simple beauty of Michel and Pascale’s life unfolding together there at West Hamlet: time to meditate in community each morning, watching sunsets with friends in the evening, communicating deeply with each other as a couple, and leisure time in nature (not to mention luscious fig trees on our walk!). They prioritized living simply within an abundance of nature, instead of more affluent jobs in the city.

A daily spectacle, just behind West Hamlet

Walking back up a small hill, Pascale showed us some juniper bushes and berries that she often collects to flavor her homemade sauerkraut and other fermented vegetables. While picking a few on the spot, she relaxedly shared with us, “I love the nature here, it’s so rich. I love gathering plants, their seeds, and fruits. And I love the plants themselves. Sometimes we go out and pick herbs for hours, and then share them with everyone. When I think of going back to the city, I think ‘Oh no, there’s so much nature here.’”

The overwhelming beauty and proximity to nature is clearly nourishing for everyone in West Hamlet. But whenever I asked them about what they love the most about living there, interestingly, nature wasn’t number one.

“What do I love?”, Pascale amusedly pondered. “Being so close to the Village, benefiting from the days of mindfulness, the morning meditations… all the time we spend at the Village. And what I love the most is to give French classes to the Brothers and Sisters, because that amuses me so much!” Similarly, Michel shared, “What pleases me, is that we are on a path of practice, and we live many ways together in the practice.”

The other residents were quite on the same page as we asked them later. “The proximity to the Village”, Serge replied without the slightest hesitation. “That’s the most important. It’s not only because we are physically close, but it’s the meetings and time together with the Brothers and Sisters. That’s what I love. And the place is so beautiful here, very lovely. When I’m with the Brothers and Sisters, I’m close to the teachings, the recitations, formal lunch, walking meditation outside, and the wider lay community. I have so much joy with my spiritual family.”

A common noontime sight at West Hamlet on a lay day

Over the week, I heard over and over again about how privileged they felt to be living so close to the Village and spending intimate time with the monastics. Over the course of my stay, and often hearing about the joys of living together and down the road from Plum Village, I started to wonder, ‘So, where does the rubber meet the road here in West Hamlet?’. I was curious.

“What difficulties do you experience in community here?”, I asked each of them. Amazingly, both Serge and Josselyne, as well as Michel and Pascal expressed that they had virtually no problems living with the others in community. ‘Interesting, I thought…’ and continued to probe further.

I was sure that regular sharing circles were a big part of their harmonious magic and bonding together. Most communities we had visited used practices like Dharma Sharing and Beginning Anew to attune to each other, develop understanding, and resolve tensions. But once again, they surprised me. When I asked about Beginning Anew (a group sharing exercise that allows expression for gratitudes, regrets, and asking for community support), Serge responded bluntly that they don’t practice formally in that way. As for Dharma sharing, they originally tried to schedule it every week, but in actuality, they only meet monthly, mostly because of their time in Upper Hamlet. I was surprised to see how harmonious they were living together, while not practicing in this way. ‘How do they do it?’, I wondered.

Taking a walk down the road from West Hamlet, vineyards and bucolic homes adorn the way.

Michel helped to point out the differences between communication within their intimate partnerships versus their community practice. “As a couple, we do beginning anew, and we share a lot. In our lay hamlet, however, from time to time, we only share as a group once a month. Sometimes, we share only every few months, because of all the retreats happening in the Village. But we also practice informally with each other: loving speech, compassionate listening, and of course all our nonverbal gestures. We pay attention to each other, not to hurt or upset each other. For example, I’m a smoker, and I always try to pay attention not to disturb others whenever I smoke.”

Serge explained that while at home, “We tend to really focus on how conscious we are of each other throughout the day. It’s our informal practice of mindfulness that never stops. We function more like a family here. Everyone gives energy to do something when they can do it.” Otherwise he explained, “We let it go and there’s no pressure.”

Our conversations also explored other roots of their harmonious living. For example, everyone had commented at least once how much joy and energy they derive from working and spending time with the monastic community almost every day. Michel expressed with admiration, “The Brothers are a magnificent example of such brotherhood. The community monastic is a global model.” Such closeness with the monastics consistently nourishes and supports the way they speak, listen, think, and behave at home together.

I was curious about their weekly schedule of practice and how instrumental it was towards their communal harmony. Serge recounted their learning early on together that they couldn’t live up to high expectations of daily morning and evening meditations, and other activities in West Hamlet. It was unrealistic for their daily lives often spent in the monastery, so they changed their program to four simple morning meditations per week with rotating facilitators. Each morning, the facilitator chooses the program based upon their individual inspiration. They always sit for 30 minutes, but the facilitator may choose either a guided or silent seated meditation, followed by walking meditation, sutra reading, touching the earth, or whatever practice he or she wishes to guide.

I was impressed by their collective harmony together, but pressed further about what challenges them in community life. “What about for yourselves individually?”, I asked. “What’s difficult for you?”

Warm glowing candlelight infuses their intimate hall during morning meditations

Without much reflection on the spot, Josselyn easily admitted, “Sometimes I just need more silence and solitude. I would like to have a little cabin in the forest at times. That’s my character to need this. Not a lot, just from time to time.” “Yes, me too”, Serge chimed in. “But that’s possible because of our age. When we were on retreat for 10 days at Montagne du Dharma, there was such silence there. When we are at Plum Village, or with our family, I really need space not to talk so much, some silence. Chatting really makes me tired.”

Josselyne amusedly continued. “We thought that we would have several moments in community, and then spend most of our time alone. But the community has shown us otherwise. In fact, we see that we have a little room now and the rest of it is community space. So we spend most of our time in community, with less time for ourselves alone. So it’s flexibility that is so important for us to have.”

Serge also confessed that he often feels the weight of his perceived community role as the ‘Papa’. “That’s a bit difficult at times, to always be the Papa. The role of Papa, I’ve done that for a long time, and I don’t necessarily want to do that again: the one who gives directions, rules, and responsibility. Not only Papa, but leader, even if I have qualities for that.” I asked Serge, “Do you think that it’s more your habits or the community’s needs?” “The two, yes”, he said, “But it’s my responsibility to look at my habits and always be responsible for them.” Between their sharings, I could sense the degree of personal responsibility that people took for their own frustrations and needs. It was likely another significant plus towards the communal harmony scale.

“The Kingdom is Now or Never” – Thay’s powerful reminder to all who who enter the hamlet

It wasn’t until a few days later that I learned something else about West Hamlet’s harmony and ease of communal living. Pascale had been sharing with me about a potential community living project near Plum Village that is more long-term in nature. Both couples are highly considering buying a residential complex with several other families and couples. She reflected, “We don’t have many difficulties here at West Hamlet, because we don’t have many big decisions here. Materially we don’t have difficulties; we only make decisions about the food and that’s easy for us. Each couple has their own room, so we don’t really have any challenges sharing space. I’m aware that it’s more difficult when we make bigger decisions as a community, because there’s more at risk.” “Aha. That makes sense”, I affirmed, as we added another piece of the harmony puzzle.

It’s clear that the six adults at West Hamlet are deeply committed and skillful practitioners, taking time and energy to live consciously and harmoniously together. But hearing Pascale share about the temporary nature of their home helped me to realize something. They are guests in West Hamlet which has unique rewards there, namely harmony and proximity to the monastics. At the same time, there are limitations to their lives there as well, namely decision making that is coupled with greater ownership and long-term sustainability. Pascale continued to reveal insights more at length with me, helping me to understand their next steps forward towards sustainable lay community living, while not neglecting both the gems and rocks that lay on their path (to be continued in a following post!).

Pascale, with figs in hand and a smile in midday bloom

On our way back home, I showed Pascale and Michel a fig tree that I found while jogging the other day. “Look!” I said. “There are so many purple figs here that no one is even picking!” Appreciating my excitement, Michel smiled and beamed back to me,“Yes, that one is nice, but there is another one just down here, that is even better. The fruits are bigger and just as sweet, with both purple and green ones nearby.” “I like the dry ones”, said Pascale. “You can collect those too, and they will last during your travels.”

My small bag was getting too full of figs, so with Vanessa’s promise to wash my shirt, I took it off for us to collect another few rounds. Like excited children, we picked and ate figs to our hearts’ content, laughed, shared, and ate some more before finally walking back together in the dark. Ready to take along with us on our journey the next morning, we strolled back with an overflowing bag and shirt full of fresh and dried figs, complete gratitude for our sunset walk, tremendous joy for our new friendships, and not to mention, a shirt completely stained and dripping with fig juices. And yes, Vanessa did fulfill her promise to wash it… about one week later 😉


This is the second of a 4-Part Series of West Hamlet, Plum Village. Stay tuned for Parts 3 and 4:

Living as a Couple in Community: Interview with Michel and Pascale, and

Deeper Roots, Fresh Visions: Visioning Sustainable Lay Community near Plum Village


Recreation of West Hamlet: The Lay Residential Community of Plum Village, Part 1

Quick and Cool News!....

This August, the Sanghabuild duo of David and Vanessa participated as staff in the Wake Up retreat in Plum Village, where we were joined by over 500 young adults. No, not 50… yes, 500! It was an incredible retreat with an explosion of meditation practice combined with creative expressions. To learn more and get a peak window into the retreat, feel free to check these sublime photos by Mercia Moseley.

But back to our mission of lay mindfulness centers…


 Part 1 of the West Hamlet Series

The Creation and Recreation of the West Hamlet, Plum Village

August, 2017

“Why don’t you have a practice center close to Plum Village instead, where you can form community the easiest, and have the most support from the monastic Sangha for your practice?”

After staffing the Wake Up retreat for two weeks, Vanessa and I spent one week with the community at West Hamlet, located in Plum Village about 2 kilometers from Upper Hamlet. We spent a week with its then current resident couples, Serge and Josselyne, and Michel and Pascal, who have been living in West Hamlet for almost 2 years. Later that month, another couple from Wake Up Paris moved in with their new baby, giving the small hamlet a holy resident number of 7.

So how did this lay hamlet sprout up so vibrantly in the monastery? There are two threads we will weave together here: the early construction and renovation of West Hamlet by pioneering lay Dharma teachers Karl and Helga in 1993, as well as the re-establishment of West Hamlet as a lay residential community in 2015 with its current residents. The older story is told in full glory and details in a separate post, Treasures of the Elders. For now, we offer the newest story of its re-creation, including reflections and growing ambitions from the current community, and photos comparing West Hamlet of the 1990’s with West Hamlet of 2017. Let’s see how this river has wound its way down the mountain over the years…

The historic meeting between West Hamlet founders Karl, Helga, and Karl Schmied in front of the old buildings…

25 years later, in the exact same location, Sanghabuild meets the new West Hamlet caretakers Josselyne and Serge.

In 2011, Serge and Josselyne were among a group of deeply committed lay practitioners envisioning a new ‘manyfold’ community practice center in the south of France, known as Montagne du Dharma, or Dharma Mountain (manyfold meaning monks, nuns, and diverse lay practitioners). A group of 15 to 20 people, including 3 nuns and 2 monks started working together, holding a few visioning retreats for themselves, and sharing dreams to manifest a center that could especially support the future of young people in France. They envisioned a community where lay friends lived all-year round, and the monastics would often come to support it with retreats.

As they enthusiastically shared their visions and plans with others, a growing tidal wave of interest and questions from lay friends around France came as a response. They started a blog with news of its early development, and started receiving donations, collecting 30,000 Euros as a starting fund. This number soon grew to 60,000 Euros, even with no building or land yet under their name.

Eventually, a donor appeared who wanted to offer a large house in the mountains of Ardeche, which was remarkably beautiful in the pristine forest, but also remarkably cold in the dead of winter. After some months of discussion, the community knew it wasn’t the right conditions for a community practice center, and the project was placed on hold. The steering community, including Serge and Josselyne, needed to let go of their dreams for the moment and let Montagne du Dharma breathe by itself for the time being.

But the seeds for a residential lay community were still deeply planted in them all.

Larry Ward offers the gift of song to the West Hamlet community in their dining and living area during the annual New Years Eve retreat and celebration…

….Meanwhile, over 20 years later, joyful community living still ripens in the same space.

Soon after, while visiting Plum Village, monastic Brother and longtime friend Phap Lu spoke to Serge and Josselyne, “Why don’t you have a practice center close to Plum Village instead, where you can form community the easiest, and have the most support from the monastic Sangha for your practice?”

There were already many lay friends living in the vicinity of the Village; it was clearly a burgeoning Sangha for both monastics and lay friends, no doubt about it. People were attracted to the monastery and days of mindfulness, and keen on community living.

Serge and Josselyne visited the monastery often and finally the monastics invited them to live there temporarily to help with some administrative documentation. This admin work was essential for the monastery, but time-consuming and challenging for the monastic Brothers. Serge and Josselyne thought about it for a short while, and then finally said to themselves, “Ok, why not? We’re ready. Let’s try it.” Like two young hippies cutting loose from mainstream society, they sold their lot, bought a camping car together, and moved to Upper Hamlet, arriving just before the French speaking retreat in April, 2014.

Josselyne shared, “We decided to sell our home, even if we didn’t know exactly what would happen. We wanted to go with the project in the Village, and be close to the monastics, even if we were unsure what that would look like.”

I was sure that Serge and Josselyne lived off of the money that they used to sell their house, and asked them to clarify how they supported themselves while living in Plum Village full time. Well, I was wrong. Josselyne explained, “We wanted to take care of our children, as well as ourselves. So we divided the sales of our house into 7 parts, because we have 5 children. So 5 parts for them, and 2 for us – that makes 7.” This was the kind of faith and generosity with which they embarked upon this new Sangha journey. “We didn’t know what would happen, but we did have a lot of confidence, faith, and a little camping car for the two of us. And we lived comfortably in it for 6 months with the Brothers.”

Karl and friends prepare the ground of renovation for West Hamlet, building a community home for generations to come…

Decades later, a lay community is reborn and flowers adorn the Sangha home of its recent ancestors.

Upon moving to the Village, Serge worked on the long and tedious process of preparing official documents for the fire marshal, as well as other bureaucratic measures that were essential for the monastery’s running as a retreat center. French speaking monastics were short in number for such tasks. Serge’s help, later aided by Michel, became an invaluable support for the community, and earned the deep respect and trust from the monastics.

Brother Michel and Sister Pascal, who practiced for years with Serge and Josselyne in the Montepelier Sangha in the south of France, joined their longtime Sangha friends in July and lived there throughout the summer and early autumn. They too were part of the collective visioning for Montagne du Dharma, and later found greater inspiration to live in Plum Village with Serge and Josselyne. Slowly dreaming of long-term living in Plum Village, they helped out here and there in the Village by cooking meals in New Hamlet, assisting with administration tasks, and teaching French courses to the monastics, loving every minute of community life in the Sangha.

By September, it was getting cold, and a small camping car wasn’t going to make it through the winter for either couple. They asked the monastics for a more sustainable living solution, patiently waiting for a response, knowing full well how fast time travels on the Plum Village clock…

Finally, by October, the brothers came with a solution, and they offered the couples an opportunity to live and practice as caretakers of the historical West Hamlet! (Okay, we knew that was going to be the solution now, but they didn’t back then). And thus West Hamlet was reborn, not merely as luxurious retreat housing just outside of Plum Village hamlets, but as a true lay residential hamlet in Plum Village.

In the backroom of the Upper Hamlet registration office, the abbot Phap Huu, and a few other brothers met with new core lay community of West Hamlet, and together they carved out details for how West Hamlet could best function and support a growing manyfold community. This is what they drafted:

  • Returning to its roots in 1993, West Hamlet is re-established as a lay hamlet; its residents live there full time, taking care of the property and guests.

  • Conviviality: every week during the lazy day, the community invites the Brothers to come over and join them for dinner! (Later, this included the Sisters too)

  • Serge and Michel take responsibility for all external bureaucratic relations of Plum Village.

  • Pascal, a former French language teacher, offers weekly French courses with the Brothers, assisted by Michel.

  • Josselyne and Pascal both work in the registration office as part of a 6 member lay-monastic team.

If you can believe it, this is the same room, separated by over two decades, great loving efforts, and countless community meditations.

Two years later, West Hamlet has been growing and thriving as a lay residence and communal space. I asked Serge and Josselyne how they have felt living and working so closely in the monastery, as opposed to their previous aspirations to build a lay center in the south of France.

Serge reflected, “We often ask ourselves this question, ‘What is really important for our lives together?’ For us, we wish to live the practice deeply, but we also wish for regular contact with the monastics to nourish our practice and relationships, not only lay friends anymore. We love the fluidity of the Village and with so much brotherhood. I like being here, because I’m in the monastery, and I’m still near the Brothers, but not with the brothers. That lets me keep some independence while still expressing my lay life. Here I have more space, whereas the monastery has the Vinaya. Here, I have the best of both worlds.”

As for Josselyne, she beamed a bright smile back at me in response to my question. “It’s an adventure. We don’t know what will happen, what will evolve.” Let’s be reminded that these are 60 year olds, not 16 year olds… I was beyond impressed how they embody the joyous vitality of impermanence in their lives, family, and community. Intrigued by Josselyne’s sense of adventure, I later asked her again about what she loves the most about living there in community.

She explained that every day she has the sense of “living vibrantly, because it’s very impermanent. I love sitting and living with that sensation. It’s living by letting go, because we don’t know what’s going to happen. And so we are very present, even if it’s not always easy. We don’t know what’s going to happen here, but it’s the best environment for us. And that’s not going to change.”

The bucolic abode of West Hamlet under sunset illuminated clouds, with its traditional stonebuilt walls and modern renovations.

Josselyne also shared about what it means for her as a grandmother. “We have grandchildren, who can come and visit here whenever they want. And that’s what we want for them. Our children found a home near here too. I am happy here because I have my blood family as well as my spiritual family. What do I want more than that?”

Talking to Serge and Josselyne, you have the sense that they’ve struck gold in their lives. But not the kind of gold you find in the earth, the kind that you find in their eyes and their hearts.

As for Montagne du Dharma, in the following two years, a donor offered a beautiful property in the southwest of France accessible to urban centers, and their visioning community renewed itself while including a group of young adults passionate about the Dharma.

Serge and Josselyne are still greatly supporting its development, but like Michel and Pascal, they have already found their home in Plum Village.

Like a father or uncle, Serge embraces Vanessa as they celebrate the moment under a windswept sunset.


This is the first of a 4-Part Series of West Hamlet, Plum Village. Stay tuned for Parts 2, 3 and 4:

Fig Picking and Harmonious Living

Living as a Couple in Plum Village Community: Interview with Michel and Pascale

Visioning a Sustainable Lay Residential Community near the Village